Award-winning photojournalist ‘wounded by police baton’ during French protests


A press freedom group has denounced the “unacceptable” injury of an award-winning Syrian photojournalist during a Paris protest against police brutality.

Ameer Alhalbi, a freelance photographer who worked for Polka Magazine and AFP, was covering the weekend demonstrations opposing police violence and the French government’s new law restricting sharing images of officers.

In AFP photos Alhalbi’s face appears bruised with much of his head covered in bandages.

Demonstrators attend a protest against the ‘global security’ draft law in Paris.

Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, tweeted that the 24-year-old had been wounded at Place de la Bastille by “a police baton” and condemned the violence.

“Ameer came from #Syria to #France to take refuge, like several other Syrian journalists. The land of human rights should not threaten them, but protect them,” he said in a second tweet.

Mr Deloire also noted Alhalbi had been clearly identified as a journalist.

Dimitri Beck, director of photography for Polka, said that Alhalbi had suffered a broken nose and injured forehead, and had been taken to hospital.

A woman reacts to tear gas during a demonstration against the 'global security' draft law in Paris on 28 November.

A woman reacts to tear gas during a demonstration against the ‘global security’ draft law in Paris on 28 November.

AAP

Alhalbi has won several international awards, including second prize in the “Spot News” category for the World Press Photo in 2017, mainly for his coverage of the Syrian conflict in his home city Aleppo for AFP.

Police said Sunday that two demonstrators had complained of being hurt by officers in protests outside Paris, while no count had yet been made in the capital itself.

Some 62 police officers were injured during the Saturday demonstrations, the interior ministry said, while 81 people were arrested.

A number of videos shared online showed marchers beating police officers, with France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin earlier condemning “unacceptable” violence against the police.

The interior ministry said 133,000 people had taken part in the demonstrations, 46,000 of them in Paris, while organisers said the figure was 500,000 nationwide and 200,000 in Paris.

The protests came after President Emmanuel Macron said late Friday that the images of the beating of black music producer Michel Zecler by police officers in Paris last weekend “shame us”. The incident had magnified concerns about alleged systemic racism in the police force.

An investigation has been opened against the four police involved but commentators say that the images – first published by the Loopsider news site – may never have been made public if the government’s contentious new security legislation becomes law.

The legilsation would criminalise the publication of images of on-duty police officers with the intent of harming their “physical or psychological integrity”. It was passed by the National Assembly although it is awaiting Senate approval.



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Protests Over Security Bill in France Draw Tens of Thousands


PARIS — Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across France on Saturday to protest a security bill that would restrict sharing images of police officers and strengthen government surveillance tools, the latest sign that anger over recent cases of police violence is galvanizing opposition.

Media organizations and human rights groups held rallies in dozens of cities including Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon. All raised alarm about the new bill, saying it could curb freedom of the press and limit police accountability.

“Rather than trying to solve problems, this law seeks to cover up blunders,” said Nicolas Gonnot, a 50-year-old computer engineer who demonstrated in Paris.

Tensions in France have been rising over President Emmanuel Macron’s broader security policies, which opponents say increasingly restrict civil liberties. The frictions have grown in part in the wake of a string of Islamist terrorist attacks over the past few months.

Many of the demonstrators consider the new security bill a drift toward repression in government policy and further evidence of the government’s slide to the right.

One of the most disputed elements of the bill is a provision that would criminalize the broadcasting of “the face or any other identifying element” of on-duty police officers if the goal is to “physically or mentally harm” them.

The government has said that this provision is intended to protect police from online abuses. But critics argue that the wording is so open-ended that it could dissuade citizens and journalists from filming the police and holding them accountable.

Another provision of the bill authorizes the use of drones to film citizens in public and allow footage from body cameras worn by police to be livestreamed to authorities.

The bill has brought widespread condemnation from the French press, human right organizations, as well as from the country’s defender of rights, an independent ombudsman that monitors civil and human rights. The ombudsman said the bill posed “considerable risks” to the freedom of information and the right to privacy.

The bill, which the lower house of Parliament passed this week, still needs to be considered by the Senate and the government has faced mounting pressure to rewrite or remove key provisions from it. Hugues Renson, a powerful lawmaker in Mr. Macron’s parliamentary majority, told the newspaper Le Figaro: “When there is so much resistance to a measure, it is sometimes better to give it up than to persist.”

In another sign that the government could be preparing to backtrack, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on Friday that he would appoint an independent commission to help redraft the disputed provision on the broadcasting of images of police officers.

The protest in Paris thundered from the Place de la République, a large plaza in the center of the French capital, as a tide of people waving signs reading “Who watches the watchmen?” or “Democracy under attack.” Some 50,000 people participated in the Paris protest, according to authorities.

Standing among the crowd, Dominique Beaufour, a 63-year-old retiree, said that the situation was “getting worse” in France, with an increased and unchecked police activity in daily life.

Although the protests across France were mostly peaceful, some violent clashes erupted later in the day between demonstrators and security forces. Some protesters smashed shop windows and set cars and a cafe on fire in Paris, while the police responded by firing tear gas and using water cannons.

“They’ve crossed a line,” said Laurent Sebaux, a protester and supporter of President Macron who added that the bill represented a betrayal of the liberal ideals that Mr. Macron defended when he rose to power in 2017.

The demonstration in Paris took place on the same plaza where, only days earlier, the police violently cleared out a temporary migrant camp. It also came on the heels of a nationwide outcry over images showing police officers repeatedly pummeling a Black music producer for several minutes.

Opponents of the bill seized upon the footage to argue that, by placing restrictions on sharing videos of police officers, the new bill would prevent such violence from being reported.

Authorities said that four police officers were detained for questioning on Friday over the beating of the music producer and were suspended from duty.

In a statement on his Facebook page on Friday, Mr. Macron said that the images of the beating “shame us,” adding that “France must never resign itself to violence or brutality, no matter where it comes from.”

As French authorities grapple with growing accusations of structural racism and brutality in policing, Mr. Macron said that he had asked the government to come up with proposals to restore the public’s confidence in the police — a demand he has already made twice this year.

“In 2015, we hugged the police,” said Ms. Beaufour, referring to the wave of solidarity for police officers that emerged after the 2015 terror attacks. “Now, we run away from them.”



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Protests Over Security Law As France Reels From Police Violence


Dozens of rallies are planned Saturday against a new French law that would restrict sharing images of police, only days after the country was shaken by footage showing officers beating and racially abusing a black man.

The case shocked France with celebrities and politicians alike condemning the officers’ actions, and has brought debate over President Emmanuel Macron’s law to boiling point.

Macron on Friday called the incident an “unacceptable attack” and asked the government to come up with proposals to “fight against discrimination”.

One of the most controversial elements of the new law is Article 24, which would criminalise the publication of images of on-duty police officers with the intent of harming their “physical or psychological integrity”.

It was passed by the National Assembly last week — although it is awaiting Senate approval — provoking rallies and protests across France.

Rally organisers are calling for the article to be withdrawn, claiming that it contradicts “the fundamental public freedoms of our Republic”.

“This bill aims to undermine the freedom of the press, the freedom to inform and be informed, the freedom of expression,” one of Saturday’s protest organisers said.

Trade unions are expected to join the demonstrations, with members of the yellow vests — whose sometimes violent protests in 2018 and 2019 shook the country — also expected.

In Paris, the authorities had demanded that organisers limit the rally to a single location, but on Friday evening officials authorised a march.

And in a sign that the government could be preparing to backtrack, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced Friday that he would appoint a commission to redraft Article 24.





French protestors rally in Nantes on Friday against the new security law with more demonstrations expected on Saturday
 AFP / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER

Under the article, offenders could be sentenced to up to a year in jail, and fined 45,000 euros ($53,000) for sharing images of police officers.

The government says the provision is intended to protect officers from doxxing and online abuse, but critics say it is further evidence of the Macron administration’s slide to the right.

But media unions say it could give police a green light to prevent journalists — and social media users — from documenting abuses.

They point to the case of music producer Michel Zecler, whose racial abuse and beating at the hands of police was recorded by CCTV and later published online, provoking widespread criticism of the officers’ actions.

In another instance, journalists on the ground at a French migrant camp witnessed and recorded police brutality on Monday as the Paris area was cleared.

In a letter seen by AFP, Paris police chief Didier Lallement wrote to officers ahead of Saturday’s demonstration that “in the coming days, the coming weeks… there’s no doubt you will face difficulty, doubt, even anger and fear”.

But he insisted that he could “count on the integrity, sense of honour and ethics” among the force.

Protests over police brutality have already taken place elsewhere in country.

In the southern city of Toulouse demonstrators took to the streets on Friday evening brandishing placards with slogans like “police everywhere, justice nowhere”.

In western Nantes police said around 3,500 rallied, while organisers put the crowd at 6,000-7,000.





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Belarus protests: Embattled leader Alexander Lukashenko hints he may quit


Belarus: The exile sacrificing everything for her country



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Obama’s daughters joined summer protests against police brutality


Former President Barack Obama says his two daughters masked up and marched in Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, albeit in a manner that avoided publicity.

OBAMA SAYS SOME REPUBLICANS DRIVE MESSAGE THAT ‘WHITE MEN ARE VICTIMS’

Nineteen-year-old Sasha and 22-year-old Malia joined demonstrations after the death of George Floyd, which created a social reckoning surrounding police brutality against Black people in America, with little guidance from their dad, Obama said in an interview with People magazine promoting his memoir “A Promised Land.” 

“They had a very clear sense of what was right and what was wrong and [of] their own agency and the power of their voice and the need to participate,” Obama said. “Malia and Sasha found their own ways to get involved with the demonstrations and activism that you saw with young people this summer, without any prompting from Michelle and myself, on their own initiative.”

BIDEN DISTANCES HIMSELF FROM OBAMA AMID ‘THIRD TERM’ COMPARISONS

“They didn’t do it in a way where they were looking for limelight,” the former president, 59, said. “They were very much in organizer mode.”

“I could not have been prouder of them,” he said.

The girls have largely veered from the limelight since growing up in the public eye during their father’s presidency. 

But Obama said they both saw “something wrong” and desired to “fix it,” which motivated them to take action.

“They’re reflective of their generation in the sense they want to make a difference and they think about their careers in terms of: How do I have a positive impact? How do I make the world better?” he said. “What particular paths they take in doing that, I think, are going to change and vary between the two of them.”

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“I think they’re going to want to have an impact and their friends feel the same way,” he said. “It’s interesting when you talk to them in groups, the degree to which, compared to young people when I was coming out of college or you know even 20 years ago, I think people were much more focused on their finances and the perks of a job. And these kids are really focused on — how can I do something that I find meaningful, that resonates with my values and my ideals? And that, I think, is an encouraging sign for the country.”



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Tensions mount in Thai protests as Bangkok braces for major rally


BANGKOK: Tensions are rising around Thailand’s protests, with police shooting six people last week and using tear gas and water cannon on the streets of Bangkok.

The Thai capital is bracing for the next major demonstration on Wednesday (Nov 25), with protesters planning to rally at the Crown Property Bureau, the agency that manages the property of the Thai monarchy.

We take a look at the forces in play and what might come next in a country with a long history of political unrest.

PROTESTERS GETTING TOUGH

After four months of rallies, sometimes involving tens of thousands of demonstrators, the mood is getting tougher, with protest leaders warning they are not prepared to compromise.

Slogans and insults against the monarchy – unthinkable only a short time ago – are proliferating, while riot police showed last week they are ready to take firm action against the rallies.


Protesters take shelter from police water cannons in Bangkok. (Photo: AFP/Jack Taylor)

The student-led movement has gained a strong base on the streets and social media and experts say the “Red Shirts”, a once-vociferous group who led major street protests a decade ago, may join the ranks.

The movement is calling for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha – who came to power in a coup in 2014 – to quit, for constitutional changes and for reform of the monarchy.

Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told AFP the movement needs to prioritise its demands and focus its leadership on a few prominent figureheads if it is to make progress.

But with their taboo-smashing demands for reform of the monarchy, Siripan said, the protesters have already “allowed the emergence of a new political culture, pushing for a freedom of expression unprecedented in the history of the kingdom”.

AUTHORITIES ‘PLAYING BY EAR’

The authorities have had a cautious response to the movement since it sprang up in July – announcing emergency measures then withdrawing them, arresting protest leaders then freeing them again.

“Since the beginning of the movement, the government has played it by ear,” said Paul Chambers of Naresuan University.

Pro-democracy protesters hold up the three-finger salute at a pro-democracy protest in Bangkok

Protesters hold up the three-finger salute at a pro-democracy protest in Bangkok. (Photo: AFP/Jack Taylor)

Unlike previous Thai protest movements, the majority of the demonstrators are young middle-class city dwellers.

The authorities may be wary of tarnishing Thailand’s international image with a repeat of the crackdown on the Red Shirts in 2010 that left 90 people dead in the heart of Bangkok’s tourist and shopping district.

However, the authorities have hardened their tone in recent days, brandishing the threat of “section 112” – the kingdom’s famously strict royal defamation laws, which carry up to 15 years in prison.

ROYAL CHARM OFFENSIVE

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, not seen much in public before the protest movement, has launched a charm offensive, making numerous appearances, talking to supporters and declaring his “love” for all Thais.

But he remains a controversial figure and does not enjoy the same level of affection built up by his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, during his seven decades on the throne, which ended in 2016.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has talked to supporters and declared his "love" for all Thais

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has talked to supporters and declared his “love” for all Thais. (Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala)

The present king has strengthened his powers by taking direct control of the royal fortune and army units.

And his frequent stays in Germany have also raised questions – some criticise him for not being concerned enough about his subjects during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is evidently a campaign to rally legitimacy. At issue is whether this should have been done much earlier, whether there is still sufficient time,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

READ: Thai king calls for unity after protesters turn back on motorcade

A VIOLENT CLIMAX?

Thailand has often seen protest movements end in bloodshed – twice in the 1970s, then in 1992 and in 2010 – and experts warn a repeat could be brewing.

Chambers said “ultra-royalist right-wing groups” are already forming to harass democracy demonstrators.

Some are talking of a possible coup, to add to the dozen Thailand has seen since its move to democracy in 1932.

READ: Thai school students protest against government, demand reform

READ: Thai protesters take on authorities in ‘rubber duck revolution’ 

In the short term, next week brings a potential watershed with a judgment expected in a constitutional court case against Prayut for allegedly misusing the army chief’s official residence.

If he loses, he looks set to be thrown out of office – a development that would likely take much of the immediate tension out of the unrest on the streets.



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Killing of black man at supermarket on eve of Brazil’s Black Consciousness Day sparks protests


A black man died after being beaten by supermarket security guards in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre on the eve of Friday”s Black Consciousness Day observations, sparking outrage after videos of the incident circulated on social media.

A short clip showed one guard restraining João Alberto Silveira Freitas just outside the doors of a Carrefour supermarket while the other pummeled him with repeated blows to the face. A store employee stood to the side filming. Other clips, shot afterward, showed a guard kneeling atop Freitas’ back.

Dozens of protesters entered a Carrefour in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, on Friday morning, chanting “Black lives matter!” One held a sign reading: “Don’t shop at Carrefour. You could die”. Inside another Carrefour in Rio de Janeiro, protesters shouted “Carrefour Killer!” as a black man lay still atop the conveyor belt at a checkout. They forced the store’s closure.

In São Paulo, protesters smashed the front window of a Carrefour, scattered goods from shelves all over the store’s floor, and set a fire that employees hurried to extinguish.

Carrefour released a statement lamenting Freitas’ “brutal death,” and said it will end its contract with the security company, fire the store manager who was on duty and close the Porto Alegre store out of respect for the victim.

The men who beat Freitas have been detained and are being investigated for homicide due to the victim’s asphyxiation and his inability to defend himself, said Nadine Anflor, the civil police chief for the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Porto Alegre is capital. One of the men was a temporary military police officer who was off-duty, said Rodrigo Mohr, head of the state’s military police.

The two spoke on a Twitter video posted by Govenor Eduardo Leite, who highlighted recent state policies enacted to combat racial intolerance.

“Unfortunately, on this day in which we should be celebrating those public policies, we come across scenes that leaves us all indignant due to the excessive violence that caused the death of a Black citizen at the supermarket,” he said.

Black Consciousness Day is observed as a holiday in many parts of Brazil. In Rio on Friday, a group of people participated in a celebration with Afro-Brazilian dance and music in the working-class Santa Marta favela. Members of a samba school performed a ritualistic “washing” of the steps leading up into the hillside neighborhood.

Black and mixed-race people account for about 57 per cent of Brazil’s population but constitute 74 per cent of victims of lethal violence, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, a non-governmental organisation. The percentage is even higher – 79 per cent – for those killed by police.

Local online news site G1 reported that Friday’s incident at the Carrefour in Porto Alegre followed a confrontation between Freitas and a supermarket employee, who then called security. Both guards were white, G1 reported.

After the death of George Floyd earlier this year in the US, Black Lives Matter protests drew hundreds of thousands to the streets around the world. They resonated in Brazil, too, where demonstrators turned out to demand justice for a 14-year-old boy killed by police in Rio de Janeiro.

Protesters in Brasilia also gathered on Friday outside a governmental institution that promotes black culture to denounce its chief, Sergio Camargo. Camargo, who is black, has denied the existence of structural racism in Brazilian society and called the Black Lives Matter movement “lefty garbage”.

Speaking to reporters, Vice President Hamilton Mourão lamented the incident at Carrefour, but denied it reflected racism.

“Racism doesn’t exist in Brazil. That is something they want to import here,” Mourão said. “I lived in the United States. There is racism there”.

The French supermarket chain has found itself in controversy before in Brazil.

In August, a man died within a Carrefour in northeastern city Recife; his body was covered by umbrellas and the supermarket continued operating for several hours. Carrefour apologised in a statement and said it was changing its protocols to close locations when deaths occur.

In 2018, a security guard at a Carrefour in Sao Paulo state beat a stray dog to death with a metal bar. The dog had been well known in the area, and Carrefour agreed to pay 1 million reais (€157,000) to a fund for the protection of animals.



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Thai royalists defend king amid protests: ‘We will not abandon him’


Thailand’s former King Bhumibol is a hard act to follow. The monarch, beloved for his perceived humility and hard work, was on the throne for 70 years. 

Now his son, King Vajiralongkorn, is facing unprecedented opposition. Restless young Thais have rallied across the country, demanding political change that includes curbs on royal power and wealth. 

While protesters insist their goal is reform, not abolition, of the monarchy, some have grown bolder in a country where lèse-majesté laws prohibit most criticism. What makes their dissent so potent is the new king’s reputation as an impulsive thrice-divorced ruler who enjoys a lavish lifestyle abroad.

Taboo-breaking insults have provoked counterdemonstrations by royalists and even calls for the military to seize power. Faith in the monarchy has been a bedrock of modern Thai identity, and the palace remains a symbol of power, spirituality, and prestige. 

Suwit Thongprasert, a former monk who led an ultra-royalist faction of the 2014 protests, was one of thousands waiting to see the royals in a recent walkabout. He describes the crown as “one of Thailand’s three main pillars: the nation, the religion, and the monarchy. If a pillar was for a house, and it was nibbled by termites and collapsed, the house [Thailand] would not be able to stand.”

Bangkok

As cries of “long live the king” echoed outside the palace walls, Sirinrat Khittichet and her mother waited in line to catch a glimpse of Thailand’s royal family. They were among thousands of yellow-clad royalists gathered on a sticky November evening in support of King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a rare walkabout in the Thai capital. 

“My family and I have always been loving and loyal to the [royal] family,” says Ms. Sirinrat. 

But she knows that not everyone shares that loyalty in a country roiled by months of youthful political protests, which is why she came out. “We want to let His Majesty and people who use vulgar words to attack him know that there are people who still love and have faith in him.”

Faith in the monarchy has been the bedrock of modern Thai identity, backed by a panopticon of propaganda and criminal punishment for criticism. The palace remains a symbol of power, spirituality, and prestige. But King Vajiralongkorn, who replaced his long-serving father in 2016, is facing unprecedented opposition from restless young Thais who have rallied across the country to demand political change, including curbs on royal power and wealth. 

While protesters insist their goal is reform, not abolition, of the monarchy, some have grown bolder and more insulting in their rhetoric; social media posts have also ridiculed the previous widely revered ruler, King Bhumibol. These taboo-breaking insults, and a recent show of disrespect toward a royal motorcade, have provoked counterdemonstrations by royalists and even calls for the military to seize power so as to protect the monarchy.

On Tuesday, police used water cannons laced with chemicals to disperse anti-government protesters who rallied outside the Thai parliament. There were also smaller clashes nearby between some protesters and supporters of the monarchy.

Behind this political struggle is a generational divide, as younger Thais shed the deference of their parents toward the monarchy and other traditional institutions. “They’re more willing to question and challenge the hierarchies that dictate who you are and what you do in Thailand,” says Tamara Loos, a professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at Cornell University.

And what makes their dissent so potent is the reputation of King Vajiralongkorn as an impulsive thrice-divorced ruler who enjoys a lavish lifestyle abroad. That reputation jars with the upright ethics of his late father, whose decades of diligence and decorum endeared him to young and old, including pro-democracy activists who praised his intervention in a 1992 political crisis. 

“There’s a real moral dilemma for many Thais … who have been raised with the monarchy but are also pro-democracy and have a moral code,” says Professor Loos. “They revered and respected Bhumibol. He was regarded as a moral and ethical human being – and that’s not true of King Vajiralongkorn.”

Pro-democracy demonstrators raise a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance, as they gather at a junction in Bangkok, Oct. 15, 2020. A student-led campaign has shaken Thailand’s ruling establishment with the most significant push for political change in years.

 

Father and son

Since 1932, when absolute monarchy ended in this Buddhist kingdom, the powers of the crown have waxed and waned. King Bhumibol, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ascended to the throne in 1946 when political power was held by the Thai military. During the Cold War, U.S. advisers sought to rebuild the Thai crown as a unifying symbol against Communism, and the king began to visit rural towns and villages, carrying a map and a camera. Photos of his visits, and stories of his efforts to develop underserved regions, are still iconic.

Historians debate his role in Thailand’s fitful democratization as the Vietnam War wound down; defenders say King Bhumibol tried to reconcile factions and promote good governance, while critics accuse him of legitimizing coups, including the 2006 overthrow of a popular elected leader. 

Still, few doubted his humble lifestyle and hardworking habits, and his death in 2016 plunged the nation into mourning. His heir, King Vajiralongkorn, a military-trained pilot, replaced him. 

King Vajiralongkorn has spent most of his reign living in southern Germany. He insisted on amending the Thai Constitution so he could legally rule from there and took personal control of a royal trust that holds an estimated $40 billion in property and assets. Last year he married for the fourth time and named another woman as his royal consort, a title not used in modern times. 

“We measure him against the backdrop of his father, and it’s so hard for him to succeed,” says Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai historian and former leftist student leader. 

He argues that even a morally impeccable sovereign would struggle to define himself, given the expansion of the monarchy under King Bhumibol and the cult of personality that emerged. 

“The monarchy is a peculiar institution anywhere in the world. It’s an institution of one person,” says Professor Winichakul, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. 

Defending the crown

Last month, thousands of anti-government protesters marched to the German Embassy in Bangkok, calling for an investigation into the king’s conduct in Germany, including his tax records. German authorities have said Thai politics shouldn’t be conducted on their territory. 

Like other Thai royals, King Vajiralongkorn almost never grants interviews and his affairs are shrouded in secrecy, though his louche image has made him a curiosity to German tabloids, which have published candid photos that Thai anti-royalists have seized upon to mock him.  

During his recent walkabout here, a CNN correspondent was allowed to ask him on camera about his reaction to the protesters. “We love them all the same,” he replied. 

That’s a view that Ms. Sirinrat shares. “I think everybody has a right to protest, and everybody thinks differently. We need to listen to everybody,” she says.

She also defends the king’s overseas sojourns at taxpayers’ expense. “I think that it’s his personal affairs. Commoners like us sometimes travel abroad. We should focus on his royal duties for Thais,” she says. 

Also in the crowd that night was Suwit Thongprasert, an outspoken former monk who led an ultra-royalist faction of a protest movement in 2014 that ended in a coup. After he handed a floral garland to the queen, King Vajiralongkorn then struck up a conversation with him. Mr. Suwit said later the king had thanked him for organizing local events promoting the legacy of the royal family. 

Like other royalists, Mr. Suwit won’t discuss King Vajiralongkorn’s lifestyle. He describes the crown as “one of Thailand’s three main pillars: the nation, the religion, and the monarchy. If a pillar was for a house, and it was nibbled by termites and collapsed, the house [Thailand] would not be able to stand.”

Mr. Suwit says he plans to hold more events in villages to celebrate the monarchy, funded by donations from fellow royalists. He praises the king for spending more time in Thailand since his return last month from Germany. 

“When people are calling that they want to be closer to His Majesty, His Majesty then shows his honesty by becoming closer to the people, closing the gaps between himself and the people, and gradually unifying together. He is reforming himself,” he says. 

Shutdown ahead?

So far, calls for reform of Thailand’s military-backed government and the monarchy have fallen on deaf ears. Some fear that a political stalemate could, as in the past, end in a coup. 

Army chief Narongpan Jitkaewthae has ruled out a coup, saying politicians must solve the crisis; his predecessors issued similar denials before seizing power, including the current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup. An ultra-royalist group recently submitted a petition to the government to “shut down” the country in order to end the protests. 

“People that are calling for a coup are a minority,” says Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. If there is one, “it will not end very easily. The coup will complicate and damage the monarchy’s situation even more,” he warns. 

After the royal walkabout, with the family driven off in a motorcade, Ms. Sirinrat’s face is bathed in sweat. Her smile is undimmed as she praises the man who she says is still learning his role as king. 

“When you have a new friend, you need to give them time and chance so that you can adjust to each other. This is the same. I am giving him the time. If he doesn’t abandon us, we will not abandon him,” she says.

Staff writer Simon Montlake reported from Cambridge, Massachusetts. 



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Peru’s interim president quits following deadly protests


Lima: Peru’s interim president, Manuel Merino, is resigning just six days after the impeachment of his predecessor plunged the South American nation into turmoil.

“At this time, when the country is experiencing one of its biggest political crises, I want the whole country to know that I’m presenting my irrevocable resignation,” Merino said in a televised address on Sunday.

Peru’s interim president Manuel Merino announces his resignation via a televised address from the Presidential Palace in Lima, Peru.Credit:AP

The surprise impeachment of Martin Vizcarra over unproven bribery allegations triggered Peru’s biggest demonstrations in two decades. The political upheaval could cloud prospects for elections due in April, and further hamstring an economy that contracted 30 per cent in the second quarter because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Merino said his cabinet will remain in place until a new leader takes over, to avoid a power vacuum.



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